HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERon May 15, 2009
During the last several months, I have read a number of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and recently finished two, this one and James M. McPherson's Abraham Lincoln. How different they are in terms of length as well as their scope and depth of coverage and yet they will, I am certain, attract and reward an abundance of appreciative readers. As Ronald C. White, Jr. explains in the first chapter, "He signed his name `A. Lincoln.' A visitor to Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, home at Eighth and Jackson would find `A. Lincoln' in silvered Roman characters affixed to an octagonal blue plate on the front door. All throughout his life, people sought to complete the A - to define Lincoln, to label or libel him. Immediately after his death and continuing to the present, Americans have tried to explain the nation's most revered president. A. Lincoln continues to fascinate us because he eludes simple definitions and final judgments." Whereas McPherson's brief biography (only 65 pages plus Notes and Bibliography) captures "the essential events and meaning of Lincoln's life without oversimplification or overgeneralization," White offers 645 pages of rock-solid historical material and brilliant commentary that probably accommodate the needs and interests of most non-scholars such as I.
Of special interest to me is what White has to say about what he correctly describes as Lincoln's "journey of self-discovery to the very end of his life." When asked to provide information for a campaign biography, Lincoln responds in the third person: "A. now thinks that the agregate [sic] of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or Academy as a student; and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law-license. What he has in the way of education, he has picked up." There can be no doubt of his insatiable intellectual curiosity, his passion for learning. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, despite severely limited resources and opportunities to access them, we know that Lincoln was an avid reader and determined to become a skilled writer as well as public speaker.
Early on in Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Fred Kaplan establishes several critically important facts about young Lincoln: he had an insatiable hunger for learning ("he read everything he could lay his hands on"), he constantly asked questions (`he had an alert interest in the world'), he was eager to be heard (being someone with a "private personality who already had a stage persona, he began to think about serious issues and connect them to his speaking and writing performances"), and like Benjamin Franklin, he was convinced that he would rise in the world (confident that `ambition and hard work would win out') despite his humble circumstances, modest resources, and dim prospects when, in 1821 at age 12, he became an avid reader of poetry. The young man was at the beginning of an extraordinary education" that would prepare him to become one of the most eloquent among history's greatest leaders. As White explains, Lincoln would look back on his part-time studies in rustic Indiana schoolhouses with a mixture of affirmation, amusement, and regret." As Lincoln once explained, "There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond readin', writin', and cipherin' to the Rule of Three...There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education."
Lincoln's learning skills enabled him to prepare for and then pass the bar examination in Illinois and, subsequently, to read and understand voluminous documentation when preparing for various trials. He diligently prepared for each political campaign as well as for each of the debates with Stephen Douglas. Years later, the 18th President of the United States read every book he could find about military leadership, management, and strategy so that he could prepare himself to assume (in effect) the duties of military commander of Union forces after his generals in the field (notably General George McClelland) were stricken by what he characterized as "the slows." This passion to learn what he needed to know at various times throughout his life clearly demonstrates that Lincoln was a tenacious and highly-disciplined student.
In the final chapter of his brilliant book, Ronald White observes, "One reason that we have never settled on one definition of Lincoln, and, indeed, never will, is that Lincoln never stopped asking questions of himself. Painfully aware of the shortcomings of his early education, Lincoln - whether as a schoolboy, Illinois legislator, prairie lawyer, or as president - always continued his self-study, growing in wisdom and self-knowledge with each passing year. He read, discussed, and pondered the great ideas not only of his time, but of those of the generations before him. He also thought into the future, anticipating the moral questions of subsequent generations. And Lincoln underwent a religious odyssey that deepened as he aged, inquiring about everlasting truths until his last day."